“What revealed itself to me was a very scary, very harsh truth.”
Michael Dove, Artistic Director of Forum Theatre asked me if I would be interested in doing some work in the upcoming Forum (re)acts series focused on the Syrian refugee crisis. The nature of the evening was about shedding light on an undeniably horrific situation where over 12 million of people are victims by inviting local artists from multiple disciplines to create artistic responses.
The evening brought a face to the crisis in ways I am sure people found deeply insightful, wonderfully creative, and absolutely appalling. What revealed itself to me was a very scary, very harsh truth.
What comes next might piss some folks off but there is only one person that I care not to offend by saying this and he is the subject of what I’m about to say.
A good friend of mine, Thomas Keegan, adapted a post he had written on Facebook into a short monologue, essentially turning the tables on the vitriolic right-wing religious conservatives in the country by presenting the case of an American family attempting to enter Canada and being scrutinized because of the actions of Dylan Roof and his ties to Christianity. It’s a brilliant parallel and points directly at the bias, hypocrisy, and racism exhibited by our own people, and by our leaders in office.
Many people connected with this that evening, not only because it was a fantastic and interesting hypothetical that brought with it something sharp and critical, but also because Thomas is a white male.
In no way is this a critique on the work Thomas presented. It was beautiful, his work in it was beautiful, I believe he is beautiful, his intentions are beautiful, and I whole-heartedly support every word he uttered and the message he delivered. I consider myself lucky to know somebody like him and to call him a friend.
None of that changes the undeniable truth that if the story were told by a person of color, it would not have been received the same.
I am so grateful that I have friends and colleagues who can and do use their own privilege to share such a story and make it connect with more people than I ever could. It’s not a matter of talent but one of identity and that’s the truth of it. (I am not implying or attempting to reduce the reach of his piece to his identity, but illustrating the privilege that his identity brings to it.)
For example, only a few months ago, there was a high-school student in Florida who, as part of a class assignment on different cultures, decided she wanted to try dressing like a muslim. She put on pants, a long-sleeve shirt, and covered her hair with a scarf, a sort of pseudo-hijab. By the end of the day, she was in tears. She proceeds to go on Facebook and share her experience. Her truly horrific experience goes viral. Swarms of people re-share her post and comment on the sad state of society and condemn the injustices against muslim women.
The thing is, she is white, and she is Christian, and she is not the only person to have gone public with her experience of this kind of mistreatment.
So we must ask, why is it that when a white Christian woman shares this experience, again a truly horrific experience that should not befall any, does this go viral? I champion her exploration of other cultures, I applaud her willingness to walk a mile in somebody else’s shoes, I deplore those that mistreated and judged her based on her appearance, but I must ask where is the outrage when it is not a white Christian woman?
Where is the outrage when a real Muslim woman is harassed on the bus, or the train, or an airport, or the street? Where is the outrage when real Muslims are blocked by heavily armed men (that look like remarkably the Taliban with their beards and flags) from entering their place of worship? Where is the outrage when every single day, real Muslims in the United States are put under the microscope to a degree matched only by the Stasi or Gestapo?
Let’s add one more twist.
What about when it’s not even a muslim but just a person whose name happens to resemble one? Or one that looks “ethnic”, as many are want to say in some backwards way of appeasing their personal politically correct hard-on. How about when a Christian man from Tunisia who “looks Muslim” (whatever the fuck that means) is beaten to death? Where is the outrage when that person is not White?
Is that the only time it matters? Of course not. It just is that way.
I’m not asking people to stop sharing cat videos (let’s face it, they’re brilliant), or asking you to stop sharing pictures of your food or your feet by the beach. I’m not asking that every man, woman, and child take up the charge to discuss all injustices world-wide all the time (though I would love to), I am simply asking why we choose not to respond when that somebody does not look like us? Because it is a choice.
Inaction is a choice. And it undermines every single attempt at achieving anything resembling social equality.
We cannot simply choose to ignore this alarming reality the same way we cannot simply choose to admit that there is an inherent bias in the way we relate to the experiences of others.
But we can begin to change that. As much as that burden lies on the shoulders of the oppressed and disenfranchised to make known their experience, it lies just as much on the creators of art like Thomas Keegan who takes that experience and makes it one that more people can empathize with. It takes the white teenager from Florida to run a little social experiment and share it on Facebook. It takes a theatre company willing to take a chance that people in the community might be more than ready to talk about these things. It takes you to reading this and perhaps trying to find a way to help spread the message just a little further. And it takes me pissing a few people off by saying this with the hope that I’ll go to sleep tonight feeling a little better about posting another cat video on my timeline when I could post one more article about yet another injustice. Sitting quietly is another chance to stand up.
“Throughout history it has been the inaction of those who could have acted, the indifference of those who should have known better, the silence of the voice of justice when it mattered most, that has made it possible for evil to triumph.”
– Haile Selassie
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long range risks of comfortable inaction.”
– John F. Kennedy